The Greatest Center Of the Modern Era: Shaquille O’Neal
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I’ve noticed a cycle in the way that we, as a fan culture, appreciate our superstars. We have an uncomplicated love for the emergent star (think Kevin Durant) and a reverence (often dotted with disdain) for the star in his prime (think Kobe). As a star begins his decline, we grow weary of him and rewrite history in a manner that undersells his peak abilities (think Iverson or T-Mac). This stage often lasts beyond a player’s retirement until finally, around the time he becomes Hall-of-Fame eligible, we come to some general consensus about the way we’re going to remember him for the rest of eternity (barring some life altering event).
I mention this because Shaquille O’Neal is the greatest center of the modern era, and because he is firmly entrenched in that unforgiving third stage, and likely will be for the rest of his career. It’s not that anyone thinks Shaq wasn’t great or that anyone wouldn’t kill to have a 26-year-old version of him land on their favorite team. But I do feel like recent discussions of O’Neal’s prime focus more on his sporadic commitment to physical fitness and his in-fighting with Kobe than they do on his utter dominance.
And 15 years from now, when we’re having this same conversation, that dominance is the ONLY thing that will matter to anyone. At his peak, Shaquille O’Neal was most unstoppable force of the last 30 years. He was everything that Dwight Howard is now plus a mean streak, an extra 50 pounds of muscle, and a much more refined offensive game than many people remember. As the statistical revolution has taken shape over the past decade, it has christened Shaq as the only potential challenger (pre-LeBron) to Jordan’s peak numerical supremacy, which is fitting because his ’00-’02 Lakers teams were the only non-Jordan teams of the last two decades that felt unbeatable when you watched them. And, a developing Kobe Bryant aside, it’s not like the supporting casts on those teams were particularly overwhelming.
There’s a good argument to be had in ranking the best centers of the modern era, but that argument has nothing to do with which guy was #1. It’s Shaq, and everyone else can fight for second.
Reserves: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Moses Malone
Hakeem Olajuwon gets my vote for 2nd place here, but its wayyyyyyyyyy closer than people think. Advanced stats actually like David Robinson a bit better, but Hakeem peaked longer and that gives him the edge for me. Everyone thinks of the ’95 conference finals as a referendum on the comparison between he and Robinson, which I suppose isn’t a crazy position to take, but the real difference was in their basic skill sets: Hakeem’s passing and quickness were unparalleled for a big man.
Chuck Klosterman’s latest book included a great essay on Ralph Samson, which argued that Samson was doomed by the perception that he was a guard in a center’s body; the observation, which was meant as a compliment to his awesome versatility, ultimately distracted Samson from the more obvious conclusion that he was 7-freaking-4 and could have had a much easier time relying primarily on his size, while using his other skills to push him from “great” to “transcendent.” What’s amazing is that the Rockets actually had two players who fit the “guard-built-like-a-center” prototype at the same time. Unlike his teammate, The Dream learned to dominate traditionally — developing the best post moves and footwork of his generation — while tapping into his point guard skill set in a way that made him one of the most unique players in NBA history. Hakeem wasn’t the second best player of his generation, but was the best player in the right system in the two best years to be the best player in the right system, and as a result claimed the only two championships left for the masses during the Age of Jordan.
David Robinson gets criticized for not winning a ring until Duncan came along, but those Spurs teams he kept carrying to 55 win seasons were otherwise pretty shallow and still kept putting up big win totals in a conference full of memorable, if flawed, teams (Malone/Stockton Jazz, Hakeem’s Rockets, Barkley/KJ Suns, GP/Kemp Sonics). At his peak, Robinson was the best pre-Shaq center of the era, but Hakeem got it done when it mattered most with an equally mediocre supporting cast. All talk of Duncan-induced tanking aside, the progression from the 59-win ’95-96 spurs (with Robinson healthy) to the 20-win ’96-’97 spurs (with Robinson hurt) was one of the most remarkable injury-inflicted meltdowns in NBA history. In the end, the best thing Robinson ever did for the spurs was get injured (thus allowing them to draft Duncan), which is ironic considering that he topped 80 games in 6 of his first 7 years in the league. Regardless of your opinion on the importance of the stat, his win shares per game may be the single most surprising number (for any player) in the above chart. He’s remembered as a great person, an endlessly interesting figure, and, in my opinion, the third best center of the modern era.
I’ll admit that Moses Malone is hurt in this analysis by the fact that I was a fetus during the last season in which he finished higher than 10th in the MVP voting (blame my dad for not sitting a radio on my mom’s stomach). He lands fourth among post-1980 centers in PER and I don’t have a ton of conclusive visual evidence to overrule the call on the field, but he did win 2 MVP’s and a ring post-1980 and remained a viable starting center until he was roughly 68 years old. I’m open to arguments that he should be nudged ahead of the Admiral, although the disparity between the quality of his teammates and the quality of Robinson’s (pre-Duncan) is enormous.
The fact that Kareem even warrants mention is astonishing considering that his post-1980 career was vastly inferior to what he had done previously. He still probably comes in 5th for the 10 years he put in between 1980 and 1989. Again, astounding.
Robert Parish was the ideal center for his team but even the most die-hard Celtics fan wouldn’t argue that he could have carried a franchise the way Hakeem and Robinson did. Alonzo Mourning was really good but I still blame him for escalating that brawl in the playoffs, he should be grateful I’m even willing to mention his name after that. And, while there’s a place on this site to write about the under appreciated greatness of Patrick Ewing, that place is not here, where I would surely spill so much ink on him that it would distract from the guys who I’ve deservedly placed ahead of him.
Young possibility: Dwight Howard
I’m still deciding whether Dwight Howard is the most overrated or underrated guy in the league. Watching him dominate in spurts without calling more for the ball is endlessly frustrating and advanced stats call even his visually impressive Defense into question. That said, how the hell did that team make the finals last year (and put themselves in position to win as many as 3 of those games)? They had no Jameer, every analytical tool I’ve seen labels Hedo overrated, Skip Alston had never done anything before, and, though I love Rashard Lewis, he was absurdly one-dimensional for the majority of that run. If you eliminate the impossible and only the improbable remains, the improbable must be true: Dwight Howard must be an elite NBA player despite having absolutely zero offensive skill set. It’s good to be 7-1 and run and jump like you’re 6-1, no?